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Do the Clothes Make the Man? 

An encounter with Thomas Frank

Wednesday, Nov 22 2000

Looking like the broker from another planet, Thomas Frank stood on the corner of Wilshire Boulevard and Western Avenue in a pinstripe suit, a crisp white shirt and gleaming black lace-ups that would have looked just right on the feet of your father‘s father at 9 o’clock in the morning on the day of a big business meeting circa 1941. He carried a black leather briefcase and sported a haircut that was almost certainly the result of a visit to a very inexpensive, very old-school barber. And in the pocket of his suit jacket, carefully folded, was a gold polyester tie that would later make his transformation into strange, anachronistic faux-emissary from a bygone business world complete.

Frank, 35, is the author of The Conquest of Cool, a study of advertising and the counterculture, and editor of The Baffler, a journal of biting social criticism that has made the case for traditional left-wing concerns (like unions) and taken great joy in mocking the notion that listening to cool music or buying ecologically correct bath unguents from the Body Shop is going to help change the world. In his new book, One Market Under God: Extreme Capitalism, Market Populism and the End of Economic Democracy, Frank argues that New Economy propagandists have sold people on what he dubs ”market populism.“ Implausibly, they have persuaded us that stock markets are a democratic, even ”revolutionary“ force dedicated to overthrowing traditional business elites in favor of ”the little guy.“

Along with the scorn he heaps on New Economy propagandists such as George Gilder, Tom Peters and Thomas Friedman, Frank makes a plea for what he thinks of as real populism -- namely, the kind that in the past led workers to form trade unions, strike for better wages, and, more recently, to stage the anti-WTO demonstrations in Seattle. While a lot of other social commentators spent the 1990s celebrating the wonders of multiculturalism and the Internet, Frank kept his eyes on the bottom line. In One Market Under God, he delivers his report on an economy in which CEOs make 475 times as much money as the average blue-collar worker and 1 percent of the population owns 40 percent of the wealth. In Frank‘s opinion, we’ve been conned, bought off with baubles while our rights as workers and citizens have gone down the drain.

Frank may study markets, but he doesn‘t seem to make money off them. He was standing on the corner of Wilshire and Western because he had just got off the Metro Rail from Long Beach, where he had spent the night at a friend’s instead of at a hotel, and his suit was purchased for $20 at a thrift store near the Baffler‘s office in Chicago. ”The secret to happiness,“ he told me later as we sat down to lunch, ”is a low overhead.“ We were dining at Ara’s, an Armenian restaurant on Melrose Avenue that is something like a secret to happiness itself, and Frank was very hungry. There had been nothing to eat at his friend‘s house, and the ride from Long Beach had taken two hours.

I let him dig in, watching as he washed down his plate of lamb and rice with several glasses of water and two cups of steaming coffee. The restaurant’s owner had offered him a choice between American and Armenian coffee, and Frank had plumped for the stuff that comes in the big cups. He is a patriot, even an ”old-fashioned“ patriot, he told me, withering criticisms of corporate America aside, and there did indeed seem something remarkably old-fashioned about the man sitting across from me. In his new book, Frank mocks the idea that those rebel start-up dudes with their snowboards and IPO millions are in some way a beneficent force compared to the dreary brokers of yore. And here he was, looking so precisely like a broker of yore it was startling.

”I really hope you don‘t talk about my clothes in any prolonged manner,“ he said after I’d asked to see the label inside his suit jacket, but the clothes made a strong impression. In any case, Frank seemed somewhat preoccupied with them himself. In preparation for the photographer, he went off in search of a mirror to put on his gold polyester tie, and when he came back the effect was like Tom Wolfe dressed by George Will. It was all a joke, but, somehow, it didn‘t feel like a joke. Here was the most prominent leftist social critic of his generation, and he was dressed, as he said himself, like an investment banker. The point would seem to be precisely the one Frank makes about the pseudo-rebellious, convention-defying rhetoric of the New Economy: Don’t judge by appearances.

  • An encounter with Thomas Frank

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